“. . . things keep growing where we put them . . .” (Kay Ryan)

IMG_6336 - CopyA couple of days ago I needed a cup from a kitchen cabinet I seldom open. My company-for-dinner dishes are there, a complete set of tableware my late partner and I bought so we could appear to be grownups rather than graduate students when guests came to dinner. These days I seldom need to appear grown up at dinnertime, so I don’t open that cabinet except when I want a specific item.

That cabinet is also home to a few keepsakes, sentimentally valuable reminders of loved ones who are gone, including a commemorative plate from my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, May 31, 1963. It is not high-quality china but no doubt was expensive in those days because my uncle, whose signature “with love” is on the back, had it inscribed for the day. It wasn’t one of those made-to-order items from the internet (t-shirt or coffee mug, or . . .). I remember that celebration well – three weeks before my high school graduation.

IMG_6459-002On my desk is a copy of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan inscribed by the poet to me. It is the collection for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She signed my copy after she did a reading of her work at SMU last year. I had ordered it on the internet just in time to receive it before Ryan’s reading.

As I took the commemorative plate from the cabinet, Kay Ryan’s poem “A Certain Kind of Eden” was in my mind. I had just read it because Google reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and her book was the handiest volume of poetry on my desk. That was the poem to which I randomly opened the book.

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.

I don’t recall holding my grandparents’ plate since I put it in the cabinet thirteen years ago. However, I have used another of the keepsakes in the cabinet, odd little rectangular salt and pepper shakers at least as old as I am, an inheritance from my mother that commemorates my birthplace, Wyoming. I used the little souvenirs the last time I had company for dinner and wanted to appear to be a grownup. The Morton sea salt container and the McCormick black pepper box I usually use are definitely graduate student style table settings.

You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re give
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.

When I first read “A Certain Kind of Eden,” I assumed it is about a lifetime of decision making. I’ve made decisions in which I have “overprized intention,” thought I was in control. I think of my life since I left my parents’ home after high school graduation in four chapters: Southern California for university and a few years beyond; Iowa for graduate school; Massachusetts for a career as an organist and then 17 years as a college professor; Dallas for graduate school (in a new field) and for love, 23 years and counting.

IMG_6463Anyone reading that litany might assume I’ve made some momentous decisions, that I “chose the bean and chose the soil” in Ryan’s poetic terminology. I have a 54-year-old plate and 70-year-old salt and pepper shakers that indicate a different reality. And I have more. My grandmother’s father was born in 1860 and died in 1937 (he died in an automobile accident on the way to my parents’ wedding). Great-grandfather was over six feet tall and office chairs did not fit him. He shortened the back legs of his favorite chair so he could lean back and be comfortable. I have that chair. It is at least 80 years old, but I would guess much older.

Three ordinary objects. Three family memories. For me, a plethora of decisions to move or to stay, to work or educate myself to change work, to be in a relationship or be alone. With each decision, I have carried with me those three ordinary objects.

I have made each of those decisions in the belief I was acting autonomously, doing what was best for me, following my dreams and desires, abandoning one place for another. But – it’s almost too obvious to need writing – wherever I have gone, whatever decisions I have made, I have with me decisions my great-grandfather (whom I never met), my grandmother, and my mother made before me. I “can’t go back and pull the roots . . . and replant.” I am bound, too, by all the decisions I have previously made.

kay ryanKay Ryan’s “one vine that tendrils out alone,” perhaps the shape of my own life, grows by “its own impulse.” I do not, ultimately, control it. My greatest hope, but finally my greatest sadness.

“A Certain Kind of Eden,” by Kay Ryan
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan, “A Certain Kind of Eden” from Flamingo Watching. Copyright © 1994 by Kay Ryan.

Memories that serve us well

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

Today is my sister’s 63rd birthday. I can’t say I remember the day she was born, but I have many memories of the time leading up to her birth and the momentous events in our family with her as one of us in the two or three years following.

The day our parents told my brother and me we were going to have a baby brother or sister (in that misty past we could of not, of course, know which), he and I were piled on our parents’ bed early in the morning. A wondrous and mysterious time.  And then the months of waiting—my first awareness of the passage of time. In the middle of that time we moved from Worland, WY, to Kearney, NE, it seemed to me in order for the baby to be born there.

When she was born, we already had a girl’s name chosen. I don’t remember what name we had chosen if the baby was a boy, but we knew that a sister would be named Bonnie after our next-door neighbor in Worland (perhaps my brother’s true first love), Bonnie Bailey. The Baileys were our best friends. They had a cabin at Meadowlark Lake up in the Big Horn Mountains they let us use so Dad could fish—of course before Bonnie was born. But she did see Meadowlark Lake at least once when our family went there on vacation when she was five or six years old.  I don’t know for how much of their lives our parents kept in touch with Bonnie Bailey’s parents. I think it was one of those longtime friendships that gave stability to our parents’ lives.

Meadowlark Lake reality in memory

Meadowlark Lake
reality in memory

Memories. Funny things, they. I have not seen Meadowlark Lake for perhaps 60 years, yet I know what it looks like. When I googled “images,” I knew immediately which were Meadowlark and which were some other Wyoming mountain lake erroneously labeled. Memories. How can I know that?

I’m not going to travel down the path of “Kids today don’t have the same wonderful experiences we had—they are too enmeshed in virtual reality to understand real reality.” I could. I have done so before. However, I wonder—I have no way of knowing, so even my wondering may be missing the mark. Do families today have time together doing nothing as we did? I remember distinctly walking by the water at the edge of Meadowlark Lake and simply whiling away the time. And having fish for dinner, caught and cleaned by my father and prepared by my mother. The cabin was simple. Plain. Not very comfortable, as I recall. And I was not comfortable. I did not like camping. I am not and never was the “outdoors man” type.  And we squabbled. However. . .

My sister is a cancer survivor. She is not finished with the ordeal. I don’t know how she or any other cancer survivor does it. I have a hip injury that has been a pain in my ass for three months now. The pain depresses me and makes me even grouchier than normal. I don’t know what I would do if I had a significantly debilitating condition.

Here comes my usual leap of logic, the one that I’d tell my students to avoid, as I say here often.

I have written before in greater detail than I intend to here about my experience of (shall I go all the way and say it?) the ineffable, that which I cannot explain and you could not understand if I did. The few times I have ever felt at one with that which I cannot explain were in some way connected to being (usually alone, but not always) in some beautiful place away from the noise of the city.

Our parents, Bonnie’s, and our older brother’s, and mine, made sure we had time when we were kids to do nothing. To notice. To simply be in the world. Especially in the natural world. I don’t want to make this seem idyllic or rapturous or blessed with any other “spiritual” condition. We were not a family living together in lofty awareness of anything.

But tucked away in the backs of our minds are pictures of beauty, are experiences of simply being. Being close to the world as it is without the layers of stuff we humans construct to keep us all chugging along together. My sister’s late husband was dedicated to helping others make that direct connection. And I’m pretty sure having experienced that direct connection is at least part of the explanation for my sister’s ability to go on in the face of odds that would have defeated me long ago.

Or, perhaps, that connection will serve me well someday, too.

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming